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Obama and Afghanistan: Here Comes the Political Battle

     The President's announcement that he will withdraw
     30,000-plus troops is unlikely to satisfy hawks or
     doves, but sure to fuel the burgeoning debate on
     the war.

By David Corn
June 22, 2011
Mother Jones
http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/obama-afghanistan-political-battle

     UPDATE: No surprise. In his speech on Wednesday
     night, Obama said he would de-surge the 33,000
     troops he surged into Afghanistan after December
     2009. He noted that 10,000 troops will be withdrawn
     by the end of this year, and the rest by September
     2012. After that, he said, there will be a steady
     withdrawal, as the United States completes a
     transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghan
     government by the end of 2014.

Thirty thousand. That's reportedly the number of troops
President Obama plans to announce on Wednesday night
that he will pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2012
(with 10,000 to be out by the end of this year). Call
this the Goldilocks approach-not too much, not too
little. But the withdrawal of these troops will probably
freak out the hawks (cue griping from Senators John
McCain and Lindsey Graham and their neocon comrades),
while failing to satisfy the doves of the right and left
who have been calling for an end to the war. Obama,
though, will be able to present a strong argument that
calling back about one-third of the US troops deployed
in Afghanistan is indeed making good on his promise to
start a meaningful draw-down in July 2011.

So prepare for plenty of debate and hand-wringing over
the number. But the more fundamental matter remains:
What are America's aims in Afghanistan and can they be
accomplished?

White House aides consistently say that the goal of the
war is to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda."
That's been Obama's mantra since entering the White
House. And this seems like a reasonable goal. But it's
been unclear-at least to much of the public-why it's
necessary to maintain a large, on-the-ground troop
presence in Afghanistan, where there are only a handful
of Al Qaeda fighters. The obvious retort is: to keep Al
Qaeda from once again exploiting Afghanistan, a state
with weak governmental and security structures, as a
safe haven. But as Obama demonstrated with the covert
and daring mission that killed Osama bin Laden, a ground
operation involving tens of thousands of troops
targeting the Taliban and other indigenous forces might
not be the most effective or efficient way to crush Al
Qaeda. Especially when such an endeavor requires an
extensive partnership with inept, corrupt, and less-
than-reliable institutions-that is, the Afghan
government and security forces. Days ago, Afghan
President Hamid Karzai denounced the United States and
other Western allies for exploiting Afghanistan, sucking
money out of it, and dishonoring the country's people.
Outgoing US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry responded
sharply: "When Americans, who are serving in your
country at great cost-in terms of lives and treasure-
hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they
are only here to advance their own interest, and likened
to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people.[they] are
filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort
here."

With a partner like that-and at a cost of over a hundred
billion a year-it's no wonder that Obama's war in
Afghanistan is increasingly coming under political
assault. Not surprisingly, this comes as public opinion
turns further against the war. A recent poll showed that
73 percent of American desire withdrawing a "substantial
number" of US combat forces from Afghanistan.

For years, Afghanistan-as a political or policy
question-was off the political radar screen in the
United States. It was hardly an issue in recent
elections, and it's provoked little debate in the House
and Senate. But in recent months, discussion and
criticism have increased-on both the right and the left.
A large number of House Democrats joined with a handful
of Republicans last month to force a vote on requiring
Obama to establish a timetable for withdrawal; they lost
on a close 215-204 vote. Twenty-seven senators-including
two freshman Republicans, Mike Lee and Rand Paul-have
sent a letter to Obama demanding a "sizable and
sustained" withdrawal. Leading Democratic senators,
including John Kerry, who chairs the foreign relations
committee, and Carl Levin, who heads  the armed services
committee, have been leaning on Obama to proceed with a
significant draw-down. Mississippi Governor Haley
Barbour, when he was flirting with the notion of running
in the GOP presidential primary, voiced skepticism about
the war in Afghanistan. At a recent candidates debate in
New Hampshire, front-running Mitt Romney exclaimed,
"It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we
possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from
our generals.'' He was quickly bashed by McCain and
Graham. The latter warned Romney: "If you think the
pathway to the GOP nomination in 2012 is to get to
Barack Obama's left on Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq,
you're going to meet a lot of headwinds." And McCain,
slamming the "isolationist strain" among the 2012
contenders, played the ultimate GOP trump card: "I
wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today. That's
not the Republican Party of the 20th century, and now
the 21st century. That is not the Republican Party that
has been willing to stand up for freedom for people.all
over the world." Still, Sarah Palin told Fox News that
she'd like to see the United States "back out a little
bit perhaps sooner"-as long as that would be okay with
General David Petraeus. (Pentagon push-back against
Obama's withdrawal is possible, but for months the
President has been saying he is confident that military
leaders will accept his decision.)

Since becoming president, Obama has been able to escape
political fisticuffs over Afghanistan. His party, though
not happy with his surge-first policy, did not raise too
big a fuss about his decision to send more troops.
Republicans generally backed Obama's assertive stance,
while fretting aloud that the commander-in-chief might
eventually go soft. And doubting GOPers did not have the
political space to make a charge of their own. Yet now
there appears to be opportunity for all camps to express
themselves fully, and this could lead to a storm on
several fronts-Democrats opposing Democrats, Republicans
tussling with Republicans-as partisans and policy
experts battle over what constitutes a true withdrawal
(Levin, for instance, wants 15,000 troops out by the end
of this year), whether a withdrawal is the right course,
and whether and how to proceed post-withdrawal with the
mission of handing over security responsibilities and
anti-Taliban operations to the still-hapless Afghan
government and security forces. And by the way, there's
the contentious issue of whether Kabul (and Washington)
ought to be attempting some sort of negotiations with
some factions of the Taliban.

In the middle of all this debating sits the commander in
chief. Obama will be able to depict a troop reduction of
30,000 as a serious step toward disengagement. That may
win over-or at least not irritate-the independent voters
he will need in 2012; it may appease Democratic base
voters who have always been uneasy with the war (though
not the progressive leaders who decry it). And there's
no telling whether this reduction will lead to true
progress in Afghanistan-whatever that might mean.
Nevertheless, Obama's announcement is likely to fuel the
rising debate in Congress and within the GOP roadshow,
rather than calm it. This slow end to his surge in
Afghanistan could well trigger a surge in political
volatility at home-as this unpopular war slogs on and
the next US election nears.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For
more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter
and Facebook.

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